Dealing with Students About Grades

Two of the more stressful aspects of university teaching are grading students’ work and dealing with the ramifications of that grading. Studies show that these stresses are significant factors in college teaching anxiety and faculty burnout. How can we prevent altercations with students over grades? And when they do occur, how do we deal productively with students—helping them recognize that some answers are better than others—and keep our own discomfort to a minimum?

Below are suggestions of ways to approach evaluation that can help forestall student frustration about grades and also guide our interactions if students confront us.

Preparing Students for Exams or Written Work

  • Explain how and why you test as you do. Provide past exams or a non-graded practice exam, if possible. Thinking specifically about your own objectives for exams can help you design ones that are worth grading.
  • For major papers, providing exemplars or helping students workshop drafts can guide students in thinking productively about their own work.*
  • Provide periodic assignments to help students assess their own progress—short quizzes, short papers, problem sets.
  • Construct a list of grading criteria (a grading rubric) and share it with students. These criteria can make grading more consistent and efficient and help minimize confrontations over grades.

Providing Feedback

  • Be as specific as possible with your feedback, pointing out how aspects of the work fulfill, or fall short of, your grading criteria.
  • Give feedback on the work, not on the student. For instance, write, “this argument needs the support of evidence about…” or “how does this explanation fit with what the text says about…”rather than, “you didn’t support your argument, ” or “your explanation doesn’t make sense.” Treating the student’s effort as serious disciplinary work and less as just an assignment can help the student focus more on the work and less on the grade.

Making the Most of a Confrontation

  • Do not discuss grades with students until they have had at least 24 hours to read the comments and think about them. You can suggest that the student prepare for the conversation and take some time to decide exactly what s/he needs and wants to say about the evaluation. This delay can give the student time to think more rationally, and less emotionally, about the grade.
  • Listen attentively and patiently to the student’s concern, and try not to interpret anger, frustration, or emotion as a personal attack on you. Avoid the desire to defend yourself or placate the student.
  • Ask the student to read the disputed answer, or essay section, aloud (do not read it yourself). Ask the student to demonstrate how the work answers the question and/or fulfills the requirements of your grading criteria.
  • Help the student determine ways to advance in the quality of the work on the next assignment and to see his work in your class as part of a process toward disciplinary competence, not as progress to a grade.

*See Princeton Writing Program for other helpful ideas on written work.